IRS: a frequent target of antigovernment violence

Thursday's attack, in which Joseph Stack flew his plane into IRS offices in Austin, Texas, is just the latest in a string of attacks against the Internal Revenue Service. There are an average of 918 threats against employees a year, says a government agency.

By , Staff writer

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    National Transportation Safety Board investigators assess damage on Friday, a day after suicide attacker Joseph Stack flew his single-engine plane into a seven-story that housed offices for the Internal Revenue Service.
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Thursday’s attack on an Internal Revenue Service offices in Austin, Texas, is one incident in a string of violent threats and assaults directed toward the agency in recent years.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), which oversees the IRS, handles an average of 918 threats made against IRS employees every year, according to the agency. Between 2001 and 2008, court cases resulting from those threats have resulted in 195 convictions, according to TIGTA.

“This is not something new,” says J. Russell George, director of TIGTA. “The use of the airplane was unanticipated, but this is not something new, not at all.”

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Authorities say Joseph Stack, a software engineer, intentionally targeted IRS employees when he flew a small, single-engine plane into a seven-story building in Austin, Texas, containing IRS offices. Mr. Stack had a long-standing grudge against the IRS, which he outlined in a rambling online letter released before he crashed his plane.

The increased level of attacks likely come as a result of the depressed economy and the IRS’s stepped up enforcement efforts, says Mr. George.

“It’s a confluence of events,” he says. “You have difficult economic times, you have an IRS commissioner who rightfully is stepping up efforts to enforce the tax code, and you literally have an environment in which people have elected to display their unhappiness in ways that are counterproductive.”

The agency increased its tax collection enforcement efforts in 2008, when Commissioner Douglas Shulman took over, further riling antitax groups.

Stepped-up enforcement or not, the IRS is often the target for frustrated taxpayers, says Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 85,000 IRS workers across the US.

"Sadly, certain groups of federal employees, such as IRS employees and federal law-enforcement officers, are more likely to become targets of irate citizens,” said Ms. Kelley in a statement. “It can be dangerous for federal workers to try to carry out their missions."

Last March, a Florida man was sentenced to 30 years in prison after hiring a hit man to kill an IRS worker who was auditing his tax return, and to burn down IRS offices in Lakeland, Fla. The hit man turned out to be an undercover FBI agent who helped arrest Randy Nowak.

In 2008, Earnest Milton Barnett was sentenced to 20 years in prison after ramming his Jeep Cherokee into the IRS’s Birmingham, Ala., offices.

In 1997, two men set fire to IRS offices in Colorado Springs, destroying the building and taxpayer files. In 2003, the men – Jack Dowell of Pensacola, Fla., and James Floyd Cleaver of Colorado Springs – were sentenced to at least 30 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $2.2 million in fines.

The latest attack may be the first instance of a plane used as a weapon, leading some to question whether the incident was an act of terrorism.

“This incident is of deep concern to me,” said Mr. Shulman, the IRS commissioner, in a statement. “We are working with law-enforcement agencies to fully investigate the events that led up to this plane crash.”

George says TIGTA is also responding to the string of attacks. “This is something I’m extremely concerned about … especially in the wake of what happened in Austin.”

Both agencies said it cannot discuss Thursday's attack, as it is under investigation, but may increase the use of armed escorts on tax-collection visits.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York introduced legislation renewing a provision that allowed the IRS to provide armed escorts to employees visiting taxpayers designated as potentially dangerous. The legislation recently passed, and the IRS is taking full advantage of it, says George.

“We’ve had dozens of armed escorts in the last few months,” he says.

As for other precautionary measures, George says, “We’ll have to try to stay one step of ahead of these people in the future.”

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